The field lists for the winter and spring racing seasons are flooding out now as the sport begins to emerge from its turn-of-the-year hibernation. The Dubai Marathon goes off tonight at 10 pm ET, while the Boston Marathon, London Marathon along with the New Balance Indoor Grand Prix, Millrose Games and USATF National Cross Country Championships have recently released their talent-laden casts. And just today Competitor Group announced double Olympic champion Mo Farah for their New Orleans Rock `n` Roll Half (with more top names to come, according to athlete coordinator Matt Turnbull.) Running afficionados are anxiously circling calendars and planning their travel and internet viewing accordingly.
At the same time, Entertainment Weekly posted an EXCLUSIVE story today informing us that the ABC reality series Dancing With the Stars has offered Lance Armstrong a spot on its upcoming spring season. According to the EW story, Armstrong has declined the offer. That news comes on the heels of a similar story about troubled actress Lindsay Lohan who also turned down an appearance on DWTS (reportedly rejecting $550,000 in the process).
So, what’s the lesson here?
I had an email exchange with Millrose meet director Ray Flynn last week regarding the excellent fields that he’s put together for not only the showcase Wannamaker Mile, but for the Two Mile event, as well. What I wanted to know was, “what needs to be done to gather interest beyond the athletics’ world bubble? In other words, what are the stakes these athletes are racing for? Isn’t that the missing element when we try to engage the general public? Ok, a wonderful field has been assembled, but what’s the purpose of the race other than winning it? What’s the hook for those outside the sport?”
Ray replied: “The Millrose Games is in its 106th year. Having run it on six occasions, I am a big believer. I think these kids like the idea of the big stage, we’ll set up a great race, and it’s good timing for them. You may think I’m deflecting and that athletes only race for money. I don’t think so. They want to know that they will be part of something great! This will be a great race. The first time I got to race in Oslo, I would have slept on the floor. All that mattered was that I had arrived on the big stage! It’s a show in the end.”
The key to that exchange was that Ray was still looking at his races through the eyes of an athlete; it’s what the races meant to them that counts. What I was wondering was what the races might mean to the public; why would they want to watch?
Earlier this morning I had another exchange with yet another old friend who’s no longer in the sport, but who, at one time, was one of its most flamboyant and controversial promoters.
Bob Bright directed the Chicago Marathon from 1982 to 1989, the time during which enormous interest in the sport was generated when Beatrice Foods sponsorship and Bright’s combative style competed against nemesis/rival/friend Fred Lebow of the New York City Marathon when those two fall giants were scheduled only one week apart. Before getting into the foot racing business New Jersey native Bright had worked as an assistant horse trainer at Aqueduct, Belmont Park and Saratoga. His other sporting passion was dogsled racing as three times he raced the fabled Iditarod Dog Sled Race in Alaska.
“When I look at all three sports I am interested in,” Bob began while out on a 12-mile mountain bike ride outside his home in Santa Fe, “the problem comes down to management. In all three sports the athletes are performing better than ever, but in all three the public recognition isn’t near what it used to be. And it’s how they are managed that’s the problem.
“We got publicity in the `80s (in marathoning) because we made the money public. Who cares who the runners are? The public wants big payoffs like in golf and tennis. And the big money isn’t to attract the athletes, it’s to attract the media. Athletes are easy to get. Money is used as bait to get the public involved. Right now Phil Michelson is in the news because he made $60 million last year and now wants to move out of California cause he thinks he’s paying too much in taxes. You have to manage and promote these sports to the point where people are interested in the outcome.”
According to Bright running could learn a thing or two from Dancing with the Stars.
“I’d do one of two things. First, I’d sign Suzy Favor Hamilton. If she came out and said, ‘I’m going to train for a marathon as part of my recovery process, the audience would be tremendous. Overcoming obstacles is a major part of what sport is about. If you’re looking for pizzazz, there it is. Fact is, you need shock and awe now to get the public’s attention, since running has been off the radar for so long.
“Another way would be to take the millions of dollars that are already being spent at the big city marathons, but which are currently outside public view in appearance fees, and put that money on the line, winner take all in a handicap race. In the old days we used to have handicap road races in New Jersey.”
We had them in Boston, too.
“So put on Million Dollar Handicap where anyone can win. You take, say, sub-2:15 guys and sub-2:35 women – find the number you want in the field and work backwards from there. Verify those times, then line them up in Las Vegas with the slow people going out first. If everyone thinks they had a chance to win, it would be a big-ass deal. Promote it a year out and hire Suzy Favor Hamilton as your first runner out. Shock the system. You’d probably be able to get a casino guy to put up the money.”
Not sure how deep Bob’s tongue was embedded in his cheek – it often was back in the day – but his point was made, shock and awe. Do something! I also spoke recently to another current-day promoter who shared Bright’s sense that this sport is lacking a spark, but who asked to remain anonymous.
“Marathoning needs a salesman. When I watch terrible Bowl Games played in front of almost empty stadiums being sponsored on TV, I realize more than ever marathoning needs a savior who can explain to the world the sacrifices that are made to excel, where a human being sacrifices so much and relies almost totally on themselves to be successful. Maybe someone will come along who will do something, anything to drive professional running into the consciences of the media and corporate America.”
“The fact that they can’t market this sport is ridiculous,” concluded Bright.
Somebody call Suzy.